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Shawn Gray Conducts Unique Cancer Research

Published Monday, July 13th, 2015

Shawn Gray
Shawn Gray '15 graduated from Wayne State with bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry.

Shawn Gray researched cancer at Wayne State using equipment rarely available to undergraduates on other campuses. He graduated in May 2015.

For a chance to use cutting edge technology rarely available at large college campuses, look no further than Wayne State.

And a student at Wayne State College doesn’t even have to wait until they’re in graduate school to use it. This technology is available to undergraduates in WSC’s life sciences department. 

Recent graduate Shawn Gray ’15 of Norfolk is one of those students. He used the qRT-PCR system equipment for cancer research, examining the role that telomerase, a protein enzyme, plays in cancerous cells.

“What really interested me in this research is the global effect the telomerase protein has on cancer, which is one of the most detrimental diseases around today,” said Gray, whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at one time. “Fortunately, my mom was able to recover, but many people do not, and I think telomerase is a major target for future cancer therapy.”

A genetics course with Dr. Doug Christensen, professor of biology at Wayne State, introduced Gray to basic cellular processes, which eventually led to his investigation.

The class learned about a part of the cell called telomeres, which act like timers for a cell – as the cell continues to divide, the telomeres shorten, and when the telomeres get too short, the cell dies. This is a good thing, because as the cell replicates, the copies are less accurate and it begins to develop mutations. A new young cell (from stem cells) takes over with a fresh slate of good DNA.

Telomerase is an enzyme protein that makes cells continue to replicate by lengthening the telomeres. This enzyme doesn’t function in normal cell replication (it’s usually just needed for a developing fetus, or a human being would not grow). Unfortunately, telomerase is activated in cancerous cells, and they continue to replicate with the mutations. 

Gray’s strategy was to eliminate telomerase by stopping its production in these cell cycles. He used small interference RNA (siRNA) to shut down matching messenger RNA (mRNA) in the cell. mRNA is essentially needed for protein (or enzyme) production (in this case, the telomerase). With the lack of mRNA, Gray was able to successfully put an end to the telomerase production.

He used a variety of equipment, all available to undergrads at WSC – including an ELx800 plate reader (to measure the concentration of telomerase), Illumina PCR System (to quantify the telomerase mRNA), a tissue culture lab and an incubator. 

Because of the chance to use these resources, Wayne State offered Gray a rare opportunity. Not only did he initially choose WSC because of “their high quality science program,” he said, but also because he was somewhat place bound – he lives in Norfolk with his fiancé and four-year-old daughter. Everything came together just right.

Gray graduated in May with bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry, but his interest in science began long before starting at WSC.

“I was always interested in science; however it wasn’t until my senior year of high school when I took an advanced chemistry course that I decided I wanted to become a research scientist,” he said. “The class was so engaging (much more than all my other classes), and I felt challenged by the content, an attribute that was lacking in many other subjects.”

Gray plans to attend graduate school in the fall of 2016, allowing his fiancé to finish college first. His first choice is the biochemistry program at the University of California-Berkeley. Until then, he will be working as a lab technician for a research company.